One Line Review: A beautifully written, action-packed, moving romance that just misses perfection because of too many misunderstandings.
Roman, a slave to Wulfgar, is less than pleased when the thane acquires a new pet: the beautiful and prideful Aron. Aron has never been with a man and has no wish to be now, but when he is claimed as a thrall to pay his father’s debt, his choice in the matter is lost.
Captured from Roman-held Londinium four years prior, Roman has learned that life as Wulfgar’s bedslave can still be sweet. He is intrigued, threatened, and ultimately frightened by Aron and his feelings for the young man as they are thrown together by both cunning plan and charmed circumstance.
Roman and Aron will form a bond greater than any other claim upon them and determine that whatever the cost, they will find a way to be happy—even if that means risking their lives to find freedom together.
Bee Among the Clover is set in what appears to be Britain during a period near the end of the Roman occupation. As the Dreamspinner Press website notes, this is ‘A Timeless Dreams title’, which means that the novel ‘celebrate[s] M/M love in a manner that may address, minimize, or ignore historical stigma’. Which is perfectly fine with me, because it means this book gets to be jam-packed full of some of the most erotic sex I’ve come across in quite some time.
The story begins when Aron, a proud (even arrogant) young man is tricked into becoming a ‘thrall’ to the Thane (or Lord) Wulfgar, in order to save his family from being punished after Aron’s father fails to pay the taxes due to Wulfgar. A thrall is essentially an indentured servant who is in many ways identical to a slave, except that his term of service to his master has a set term. In this case, Aron is to stay with Wulfgar for a year, which is bad enough: but then he discovers that Wulfgar has a very particular job in mind for him. Bed warmer. And Aron’s never even looked at a man that way before, not to mention being so angry at Wulfgar, his father, and the situation, that he can’t even see straight.
Aron is by turns grateful to, resentful of and baffled by Wulfgar’s existing bed companion, Roman. Roman is a slave proper. He belongs to Wulfgar outright, and in more ways than are immediately apparent. He is kind to Aron and tries to help him adjust to his new role, but Aron cannot understand how Roman can take pleasure in Wulfgar’s often clumsy embrace, and his prickliness, combined with Roman’s feelings of worry about what might happen to him if Aron replaces him as ‘favourite’ cause their relationship to be fairly rocky at the start.
Gradually, though, the two begin to develop a sense of kindredness, friendship and understanding which eventually develops into a deep and passionate love. Unfortunately, neither of them is supposed to be looking at anyone other than Wulfgar, and even though he often directs them to make love to each other in order to entertain him, he always keeps a tight control on the action. He’s even trained Roman so that the slave can’t orgasm unless Wulfgar says the word. Nevertheless Aron and his ‘Darkling’ steal moments together, dreaming about impossible futures and desperately trying to keep their love alive.
Now, you’d think the above would be quite enough to fill a book, but the authors aren’t content here to rest after setting up this intriguing situation. They fill the story with many other elements, including Pagan Gods, escape attempts, a psychotic War Lord and many, many misunderstandings. With a fine hand for characterisation (Wulfgar being an example of a perfectly rounded and believable character) and beautiful prose, they create an epic story which brought me to real tears at least three times. In the middle of the story a self-sacrificing Roman finds the strength to give Aron up in order to save him, and my feelings about this book reached such a pitch that I would have given it five stars, a DIK and had ‘Darkling and Aron Forever’ tattooed across my heart.
Unfortunately, the last third of the book is rife with misunderstandings between the characters that separate them emotionally time and again, even as they come together physically. Initially these rifts do make sense, because Aron, despite being a thrall, does not really understand what it is to be a slave, to belong to another and have no sense of self, while Roman is horribly emotionally scarred after his years of belonging to the slightly clueless Wulfgar and finds it hard to know who he really is.
By the time we reach the last misunderstanding of the story, though, I found my patience had worn a bit thin, and my reaction this time, instead of tears, was an eyeroll. The book was already quite long enough, and I felt as if the issues between the characters could have been resolved in a different way. It eventually takes the intervention of a Celtic Goddess to get the two back together – that’s how much of a mess they make. To be fair, even the Goddess (who has appeared often throughout the story to aid them) seems exasperated by their lack of communication. She devises an ironic lesson to drive the point home, and from that point on the story becomes golden again, providing a climax that was all I could have asked for.
A warning: in many ways this is not a conventional romance, since even though Roman and Aron are madly in love with each other both of them are also having extremely enjoyable sex with Wulfgar most of the time as well. Even when Aron manages to get Roman out of Wulfgar’s bed for good, he himself has to keep servicing his master. I can’t say the sex is consensual exactly, since sex between slave or thrall and master (especially when the threat of violence for disobedience is held overhead) can’t ever be truly consensual, but neither is this a story where the main characters grit their teeth through sex with anyone except each other.
I don’t generally like historical m/m romances at all, but this book was just so enjoyable that I can’t wait until the sequel (a story concentrating on Wulfgar) falls into my eager little hands. I’m hoping the Big Misunderstanding Problem won’t reoccur in that one. So if you can live with a slightly over-long final third to the book and a literal Deux Ex Machina ending, I highly recommend Bee Among the Clover.